NFL Ultimate Questions: Will Calvin Johnson Break the Receiving Yards Record?
Yesterday, I took an in-depth look at Adrian Peterson's chance of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record and found out that, nope, he really didn't have that good of a shot. At only a 21 percent chance, there is currently as good of odds that either the Falcons, Seahawks, or Redskins will win the Super Bowl as there is of AP breaking the record. I'll take the field, thank you very much.
But there's a secret that very few people outside of Detroit may realize. Another record has a legitimate chance to be broken, a record that has stood for 17 years on its own: the most receiving yards in a single season. The current record was set by Jerry Rice in 1995, an incredible 1,848 yards. Even more incredible, the second place all-time total was also set in 1995, with Isaac Bruce just falling short of Rice's mark at 1,781 yards.
Calvin Johnson has the chance to eclipse both.
Currently sitting at 1,667 receiving yards on the season, Megatron already has one of only 15 seasons all-time to go over 1,600 yards. He's currently eighth on the single-season list, directly behind, well, himself from last year (1,681 receiving yards). That means to jump Rice, Johnson will have to gain 182 yards receiving over the final two games of the season.
So does he have a chance, or is this record fools gold, just like AP's chase? Well, it seems that the media may be focusing on the wrong record. Because not only does Johnson have a good shot, but he's actually likely to break it.
According to numberFire's Chief Analyst Keith Goldner, Calvin Johnson has a 63.96 percent chance of breaking Jerry Rice's record. That's better than a 50/50 chance here, people. Overall, he's projected for 205.28 receiving yards over the final two games of the season, which would give him 1,872 yards on the season. That projection would break Rice's mark with 24 yards to spare.
This week against the Falcons, we have him at 98.45 receiving yards, and next week against the Bears, we have him at 106.83 receiving yards. If Johnson gets another game with over 100 yards receiving on Saturday - which, by the way, would be a record for most consecutive 100 yard receiving games (eight) - then all he would need to do is be within 24 yards of his current projected total in Week 17 to break the record.
Behind the Numbers
Target practice! It's like a game: Matthew Stafford gets to see how many times he can hit the Transformer right in the chest. But surprisingly, Johnson doesn't have as commanding of a lead in that targets category as you might expect. His 174 targets do indeed rank first in the NFL, but Reggie Wayne is close behind at 170 looks followed by Brandon Marshall's 165. And while Johnson's proportion of 27.1 percent of all Lions throws coming his way is high, Marshall's 38.6 percent rate, Wayne's 30.1 percent rate, and even Andre Johnson's 28.2 percent rate far outpace him.
But the Lions' patented "Chuck it up and see what happens"TM offensive gameplan helps out Megatron tremendously. Stafford currently leads all NFL quarterbacks with 629 passing attempts, and it's not even close; Drew Brees is next on the list with 574 attempts, almost a full game behind. Detroit has the most passing attempts in the league (642) but only sits in 25th with 349 rushing attempts, a 64.8 percent passing ratio that only New Orleans (64.7 percent) and Dallas (64.2 percent) even come close to.
Johnson has done a good job at converting those targets into workable pieces, just like a real Transformer should. His catch rate isn't spectacular; at 60.1 percent, it's actually just above the league average. But based on the timing of those catches, Johnson has been able to add a solid, but not spectacular amount of value to the Lions so far this season. When taking his Net Expected Points (NEP, explained in full here) value based on targets as well, we find that he's gained the Lions 91.69 expected points above the average NFL play. That's over 12 points better than the next best receiver, Demaryius Thomas of the Broncos.
That value added to the Lions is the best in the league, but it's not historic like Adrian Peterson's NEP per rush marks. His current Net Expected Points ranks 15th among receivers since the start of the 2000 season, the first that we have NEP data for. But before you get too excited, three separate receivers from last year added more value to their teams - Jordy Nelson, Marques Colston, and all-time record holder Wes Welker. Although Calvin Johnson led the NFL in yards last year as well, he was fourth in NEP at 90.55 on the season. If Johnson maintains his current 6.55 NEP per game mark, he would end the year with 104.77 NEP, which would be sixth-best since the start of the 2000 NFL season.
And that's how, despite potentially breaking the single-season receiving yards record, Calvin Johnson's Lions only sit at 4-10 on the season. Johnson leads the NFL in 20+ yard receptions with 32 and first down grabs with 79, but he has not been able to break open long gains (only three catches above 50 yards on the season) or catch touchdowns (his five TDs ranks 33rd among NFL receivers) that add significant amounts of value to a team.
The Opponents Dilemma
Oh, the evil, evil NFL schedule makers. They may try to foil Calvin Johnson's record attempt like they foiled Adrian Peterson's run, but they'll never succeed! Well, at least it's harder for them to succeed, given the odds and all. While Adrian Peterson's run to history may be likely foiled by the teams he's playing in the final two weeks, Johnson faces a similarly tough, but not record-crippling, run to glory.
The Atlanta Falcons come into Week 16 with numberFire's No. 9 opponent-adjusted defense, only having allowed 2.99 NEP over expectation. But that's a new development - the Falcons were near the middle of the pack before allowing an astonishing 17.71 points less than expectation in shutting out the Giants in Week 15. A big portion of that was the passing game - Atlanta allowed 11.12 NEP less than expected to Eli Manning last week.
Overall, that now places the Falcons with only having allowed 12.46 NEP above the league-average play to opposing passing games so far this season. Since passing is so much more efficient than running, giving up less than one point per game to opposing pass attacks isn't a bad mark at all. In fact, it's good enough for seventh in the NFL this season.
Chicago, meanwhile, poses a tough test. Their 95.75 points under expectation allowed this season places them at No. 1 in numberFire's power rankings, and their 52.88 points under expectation to passing games places them second behind Arizona. But that tough Chicago defense has been more of a mirage down the stretch. After allowing 86.63 points under expectation to opposing passing games through the first ten weeks, they have allowed an average of 6.75 NEP per game to opposing passing attacks over the last five weeks.
It just seems that the Lions throw the ball too much for him not to get it. As long as he keeps averaging over 10 targets in each of his next two games, he's essentially guaranteed for at least five catches. Given his 32 receptions of at least 20 yards this season, that could be all he needs to break Jerry Rice's record.
So while the media keeps focusing on Adrian Peterson's likely doomed run to glory, keep your eye on Megatron on Saturday night against Atlanta. You're likely to see history in the making.